History of Designated Driving

The term “designated driver” is commonplace in most American homes today. But you may be surprised to learn that this is a relatively new concept in the United States that began, in all places, at an Ivy League University. In the 1980s, the leading cause of death for Americans aged 15 to 24. Harvard University’s School of Public Health set out to do something about it.

Designated Driving Starts in College

The idea of the designated driver actually originated in Scandinavia in the 1920s.  In the United States, the Harvard University School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication laid the groundwork for bringing designated driving into the fast lane in 1988. That year, the Harvard Alcohol Project was launched to show how the concept of the designated driver could challenge popular social conventions of drinking and driving. The Project partnered with major Hollywood studios and television broadcast networks ABC, NBC and CBS to release a series of public service announcements aimed at drunk driving prevention. The Project garnered national praise and attention.

The Project expanded its partnership with Hollywood and the communications industry when various television shows, from “Cheers” to “The Cosby Show,” began writing messages of drunk driving prevention and referencing designated drivers in their scripts. Leaders in government, including President George Bush and President Bill Clinton, as well as prominent figures in sports and entertainment lent their support to the designated driving movement. By 1991, the term “designated driver” could be found in the dictionary. The national dialogue on the effects of drinking and driving was at an all-time high, while alcohol-related traffic fatalities were at an all-time low. The message resonated loud and clear with Americans.

Look It Up: Designated Driving Saves Lives

The Alcohol Project’s success in bringing the concept of a designated driver into American consciousness is further evidenced by the number of lives that were saved. In 1988 when the Project began, alcohol-related fatalities were at a staggering 23,626 nationwide. By 1992, that number had dropped 24% to 17, 858, and by 1994, the number dropped again. It is estimated that over 50,000 lives were saved between 1988 and 1998.